It’s such a wonderful feeling to arrive home and be greeted by your dog happily wagging its tail. Whether your best friend has a fluffy, thin, or short tail, seeing them wiggling about can always put a smile on your face.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why do dogs have tails? Making dog owners happy seems like a good reason, but surely that’s not a tail’s only function? Since dogs are born with tails, it’s safe to assume that there is a good reason for having them.
In fact, our furry friends can use their tails to do many different things. And just like a dog’s nose can tell you many things about its physical wellbeing, the tail is important for communicating its emotional state.
Let’s take a look at how a dog’s tail works, why your pet uses it, and what you need to know about interpreting these tail wags.
- 1 Anatomy of a Dog’s Tail
- 2 Why Do Dogs Have Tails?
- 3 What If a Dog Doesn’t Have a Tail?
- 4 Tail Injuries
- 5 Final Thoughts on Why Dogs Have Tails
Anatomy of a Dog’s Tail
A dog’s tail is very flexible, which might lead you to believe that this appendage has no bones. However, you would be mistaken. The canine tail is actually an extension of the spine and is made up of a string of small bones.
There can be anywhere between 6 and 23 bones in a dog’s tail. These bones start bigger at the base and get smaller towards the tip of the tail. Each bone is enclosed in muscle, which allows your dog to move their tail in many different ways.
Your dog’s tail also includes tendons and nerves, which gives them feeling in this part of their body. If you’ve ever accidentally stepped on your pet’s tail (and profusely apologized after hearing them yelp), you’ll know that their tails are definitely sensitive.
Different Tail Types
Although the basic anatomy of all dog tails is the same, there are variations depending on the breed of the dog. There are around 197 dog breeds and many of them have tail types that are curlier, thinner, thicker, or shorter than the average tail.
An otter tail is a thick, rounded tail often seen in water dogs, like retrievers. These thick tails work as a rudder when the dog is swimming. The opposite of this tail type is the whip tail. Breeds like Greyhounds and Whippets have these long, thin tails to help them run at greater speeds.
Certain breeds, like the Chow Chow, are born with ringed tails that curl up over their backs, but they can still move and straighten their tails. Other dogs, such as Pugs, have corkscrew tails that stay in a spiral position and can’t move.
Why Do Dogs Have Tails?
So now you know what your dog’s tail is made of, but why do our furry friends have these appendages? Dogs use their tails for various practical reasons. Here are the main ways that a tail is useful to them in everyday life.
1. Assists in Movement
When your dog is simply walking around, he doesn’t really need his tail to help with movement. However, when your dog is moving quickly or changing direction suddenly, the tail is very useful as a counterbalance. Let’s look at what that means.
When a dog changes direction while running, the front legs will immediately move in the new direction. However, the back legs will continue on in the original direction for a moment. With two pairs of legs moving in different directions, a dog could trip or spin off course.
That’s where the tail comes in handy. To stop himself from falling, a dog throws his tail in the new direction that he wants to turn. This acts as a counterweight to the dog’s rear end and helps him to turn smoothly.
Tails also help dogs while they’re swimming. Although most of the movement comes from the paddling of a dog’s paws, their tail acts as a rudder to help the dog turn and steer in the water.
2. Helps with Balance
Besides acting as a counterbalance when your dog is moving at high speed, a tail is also useful for balancing on tricky surfaces. When a dog walks along a narrow surface or climbs on uneven footing, its tail helps him to balance.
Watch your pet the next time they climb over rocky ground or walk across a slim object. The dog will deliberately swing its tail to the opposite side of its body’s tilt. The weight of the tail then helps your dog to maintain its balance.
3. Shows Mood and Emotional State
Your canine’s tail isn’t always busy helping with movement and balance. Most of the time, as our pets go about their daily lives, their tails are active in other ways. The way that our dogs move their tails can tell us a lot about their current emotional state.
Just like humans rely on facial expressions to convey emotions, dogs use their tails to show us and other dogs how they are feeling. As most dog breeds have highly visible tails, it makes sense that this is the visual signal they use to express their mood.
The position of a dog’s tail, the speed at which it is wagging, and which direction it is moving are all factors that combine to show what a dog is feeling. However, the tail alone can’t tell you everything.
Just like humans use tone of voice and body language along with facial expressions, cues from the rest of the dog’s body are also important. Take note of your dog’s stance, the position of its ears, and what sounds your pet is making.
Indicating their emotional state with their tail is part of a dog’s communication. There are too many variations of tail position and wagging speed to cover everything in this article, but here are some of the most common tail wags and what your dog is communicating with them.
A lowered tail means that your dog is being submissive and showing that it’s not a threat. When the tail is completely tucked between the legs, your pet may be anxious or afraid.
On the other hand, a tail raised high shows that a dog is confident, assertive, or sometimes aggressive. Look to other body cues, like raised hackles, to know what your dog means.
If a dog’s tail is wagging slowly and lower to the ground, it can mean that they’re feeling hesitant or insecure, like when meeting a new dog. Everyone’s favorite, of course, is seeing those super-fast side-to-side wags. This means that your dog is excited and happy to see you.
Differences Between Breeds
Most dogs use the same tail behavior to communicate the same things. The only difference between breeds is where the neutral resting position of the tail is.
Most dogs have their tails hanging at a low angle when they are relaxed and are not currently communicating something specific. However, breeds like Greyhounds and Whippets tend to hold their tails tucked against their stomach. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily afraid — it is simply a different neutral position.
In the same way, breeds like Beagles and Terriers tend to hold their tails nearly vertical all the time. This might not mean that they are on the alert, as this is simply a natural position for them. You can pay attention to their ears and other body language to know what they are communicating.
Another interesting fact about tail wagging is that it is learned behavior. Young puppies don’t wag their tails until they are about 30 days old. They are physically able to move their tails, but they don’t.
This is because communicating with their tails is social behavior, and for the first few weeks of their lives, puppies don’t need to socially interact. They simply stay close to their mother, feed, and sleep.
When they get older, they start interacting with their littermates. Through play behavior and observing their mother, they then learn to use their tails to communicate emotions and get along with each other.
5. Spreads Their Scent
A dog’s tail-wagging behavior also serves the purpose of spreading its scent. There are two sacs, called anal glands, located underneath a dog’s tail. These contain a liquid with a smell that is unique to each dog, like a human fingerprint.
When your dog moves its tail, the muscles around the anal glands contract and press on the sacs to release some of the scents. Other dogs can smell these unique pheromones and know that your dog is present.
This ties in with a dog’s dominant or submissive tail behavior. A dog that feels confident will raise its tail high so that its unique scent can spread and tell everyone that he’s around. On the other hand, a dog that doesn’t want to be noticed will keep its tail tucked to reduce the spread of its scent.
What If a Dog Doesn’t Have a Tail?
So far, we’ve seen that tails are important tools for dogs in communicating their feelings and intentions. But what about dogs who don’t have tails?
Dogs that are considered ‘tailless’ actually have a tiny tail stump. Some of these are bobbed tails that are specific to a certain breed, like French Bulldogs. Sadly, however, there are many cases where tails are docked, even though the dog breed naturally has a long tail.
Today, most vets oppose the practice of docking tails for various reasons. One of the consequences of docking is that dogs have difficulty communicating with other dogs. Since they can’t use their tails to show their intentions, other dogs are wary to approach them and more likely to act aggressively towards them.
If you have a say in the matter, it is best not to have your pet’s tail docked. Tailless dogs can still have happy lives and use other body language to communicate, but it does make things harder for them.
Now that you understand how important a dog’s tail is, it is your job as an owner to look after your pet’s tail and be aware of any injuries. If you notice that your pet’s tail is more sensitive than usual, gently check for any injuries and ask the vet for advice in treating it.
As your pet moves around the house and wags its tail in excitement, it often bumps against rough surfaces and can pick up minor scrapes and bruises. Dry skin or parasites can make their tails itch and cause them to chew on it.
A fracture sounds terrible, but accidents can easily happen where a tail is stepped on or caught in a door. A fractured tail is more serious and should be treated by the vet.
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Final Thoughts on Why Dogs Have Tails
Understanding how your dog’s tail works and what it’s trying to tell you is an important part of being a pet owner. Dog tails are wonderful things and we want to ensure that they keep on happily wagging.
The anatomy and function of a dog’s tail can differ slightly according to the breed. In general, all dogs use their tails to help with movement and balance. It is also an important part of their communication system and how they show emotion.
Take the time to observe your dog and its tail behavior in different situations. You’re sure to learn a lot about your furry friend’s personality and grow even closer to them as a result.
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